Family Theater Productions is preparing for the theatrical release this fall of PRAY: The Story of Patrick Peyton, which recounts the inspiring story of an Irish-born priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross who dedicated his life to promoting devotion to the Blessed Mother through the rosary. Venerable Fr. Patrick Peyton (1909-1992) used radio, television, film, and 540 rosary rallies throughout the world to accomplish his mission, and popularized such phrases as “the family that prays together, stays together” and “a world at prayer is a world at peace.” He also founded Family Theater Productions in 1947.
Fr. Peyton was born in Ireland to a devout Catholic family that faithfully prayed the rosary. Like many Irish of the time, he emigrated from Ireland to the U.S., planning to marry and make his fortune. The only work he could find was as a janitor at a cathedral, which led him to enter Holy Cross Seminary.
During his time in the seminary he contracted tuberculosis, and after many months in the hospital was not expected to survive. A seminary professor, an Irish priest, came to visit him in the hospital and encouraged him to pray to the Blessed Mother for his recovery, assuring him that to the degree which he had faith would be the degree to which she would respond. As he prayed, he sensed he was being physically healed. To the surprise of his doctors he recovered, and was ordained a priest—along with his brother—in 1941.
In gratitude to the Blessed Mother, he resolved spend his life promoting devotion to her, especially in the context of prayer within the family. It was his desire to persuade 10 million American families to regularly pray together.
Fr. Peyton made his way to Hollywood, California to take advantage of film as well as the broadcast media to promote his message. Remarkably, as he ventured into film and television, he was able to solicit cameo endorsements from A-list celebrities of the time, including Bob Hope, James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Jackie Gleason, Bob Newhart, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Gregory Peck, Ann Blyth, and many more, yet maintaining the simplicity and humility of his seminary days.
Seeking still more venues for his message, he arranged rosary rallies throughout the world, which featured both prayer and his preaching. One gathering drew one million to San Francisco; later in life he drew two million to a rally in the Philippines in 1985. Although Fr. Peyton was largely apolitical, many credit his rally to the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
The film incorporates interviews with many who knew Fr. Peyton, including his former secretary, the Sisters who cared for him as he was dying, family members—including his nephew and namesake, Fr. Pat Peyton—and families who have been transformed by faithfully praying the rosary. Others interviewed include former major league baseball player Mike Sweeney and wife Shara, who shared how their faithful praying of the rosary helped save their marriage.
Filming was done in the principal places associated with Fr. Peyton’s life, including the Los Angeles area; Boston, the site of the Holy Cross Fathers headquarters; Albany, New York, where he launched his mission; and Ireland, where he was born and raised. The Holy Cross Fathers cooperated with the filmmakers, offering them many names of people to interview for the film.
Focus on family prayer
Megan Harrington is producer and co-writer of PRAY. She knew little of Fr. Peyton when she was brought into the film project, but after dozens of interviews discovered him to be a man “very focused on family prayer as his mission, and very much in love with the Blessed Mother.”
Because of his zeal, she said, “he was very demanding of those who worked for him. He worked hard, and expected those around him to do so as well.”
Fr. Peyton knew from a young age his purpose in life and what God wanted of him, she continued, so he became “a tireless fighter for families, and a believer in family prayer.”
Harrington noted that she was one of eleven children in a family also dedicated to the daily rosary, and the making of the film led her to realize how important it was. “Of all the things that happened in his life,” she says, “Fr. Peyton believed the daily rosary he was a part of as a boy most significantly changed his life.”
The film includes footage of Fr. Peyton returning to Ireland in the last years of his life to visit the graves of his parents in order to thank them for this gift.
Fr. David Guffey, CSC, PRAY’s executive producer, said that the impetus for the film was that while there are existing biographies about the priest, “there was a need for something better for today, something that stressed that prayer as a source of family unity is more important than ever.”
He recruited Harrington, director Jonathan Cipiti, and others on the production team “to capture the essence of Fr. Peyton.”
Like Fr. Peyton, Fr. Guffey is a Holy Cross Father and met the priest multiple times while Guffey was a seminarian. “He had an incredible presence,” Fr. Guffey recalls, “When you met him, you were drawn to him.”
Now Fr. Guffey works for Family Theater Productions, the organization producing PRAY and founded by Fr. Peyton. Over the years the production company has been involved with radio, television, films, holiday specials, and even a talk show. Currently, Family Theater Productions is producing digital content and movies, which can both be streamed and viewed in theaters.
Although Fr. Guffey had met Fr. Peyton, he knew little of the priest before production of PRAY began. Like Harrington, he has learned that Fr. Peyton was “absolutely single-hearted; the whole of his life energy went to promoting family prayer. He didn’t make time for extraneous things; he spent all his time trying to get families to pray, and grow closer to God and the Blessed Mother.”
Additionally, Fr. Guffey remarked, Fr. Peyton was not shy about questioning people regarding their prayer lives. “People didn’t seem to mind it,” he says. “It was clear he cared about your spiritual life.”
He also discovered that Fr. Peyton was naturally shy, but rose above his shyness to accomplish the mission he believed God gave him. When he launched his first nationwide radio show on Mother’s Day, 1945, for example, he wanted a major Hollywood star to introduce the program as a means of drawing the maximum number of viewers. He “cold-called” Bing Crosby with his request, and Crosby agreed to do it.
Fr. Guffey also noted that few Hollywood stars today are public about faith, in contrast to the 1940s and 50s. “Many stars in that era were people of faith,” he said, “and wanted to make shows of which they were proud. The non-Catholic and non-religious also lent their support, as they saw it as a kind of public service and good for their careers.”
Fr. Peyton was careful to hire the best talent to produce his programs and movies, Fr. Guffey continued, as would be expected by major stars.
Fr. Guffey believes that many stars of today are still friendly to faith, but they no longer want to lend their names to religious productions as “it is risky to come out as a person of faith in the world today. It’s the same with other professions, such as those in business or academics.”
Change in society and in the Church
PRAY touches on how society and the Church changed in the 1960s and 70s, and how much of Fr. Peyton’s efforts were curtailed during this period. Practices antithetical to Church teaching, such as abortion and the use of contraceptives, were being widely accepted in society, and opposition to legitimate authority—both ecclesial and secular—grew, church attendance declined, and the importance of prayer diminished in the minds of many. Once scene in the film depicts and aging Fr. Peyton, for example, responding to a young person who insisted that she did not have time for prayer.
Harrington related, “The world was changing in many ways, and Fr. Peyton’s physical health was in decline. This was the time when he had open heart surgery.”
Another element in the decline in Fr. Peyton’s ministry in North America and Europe during the 1970s, Fr. Guffey believes, can be linked in the change in devotional life among many in the Church after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Greater emphasis was given to the Eucharist and other sacraments, he said, “and devotions like the rosary went away for a time. It was hard to gather large groups to pray the rosary, the way they might in the 1950s.”
He continued, “But I think the rosary is coming back, so I think it is the right time to re-introduce Fr. Peyton.”
The film is for “anyone who lives the story of a hero,” Harrington concluded. “Everyone can relate to the highs and lows that Fr. Peyton experienced in his life.”
Fr. Guffey hopes young families and those with teenagers will also view it. “I also think it will be a consolation to older people,” he added, ‘who will come to realize that the devotions passed on to them are so important.”
He concluded, “I hope many will take to heart the message of this saintly man.”
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